Jeremy Hansen: Vermont Stands With Ukraine event in Burlington on Saturday

This commentary is by Jeremy Hansen, a resident of Berlin, a computer science professor at Norwich University, a former Berlin Selectboard member, and founder of CVFiber, a communications union district serving Central Vermont. He is a Democratic candidate for the state Senate district covering Washington County, Braintree, Orange and Stowe.

More than 100 days have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been injured and killed by the Russian invasion, including nearly 300 children killed and nearly 500 more injured. 

Russia has lost tens of thousands of troops and thousands of tanks, aircraft, and other vehicles. Millions of civilians fled Ukraine, but millions more have committed themselves to the fight at home. 

It’s worthwhile to know a little of the background about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. In 1932, during the Holodomor, millions of Ukrainians were intentionally starved to death by the Soviet government. In 1944, the Soviet Union forcefully deported hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars from their homes, reducing the Tatar population in Crimea by nearly half while moving Russians in. 

For much of the 20th century, the Ukrainian language and expressions of Ukrainian culture were banned under a state policy of Russification. Distant family members told me that they cried with joy after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 because they could sing the State Anthem of Ukraine again. In 2013 and 2014, Ukrainians revolted against a government that was pushing to integrate with Russia more tightly. 

As a reaction to their success, Russia invaded parts of southeastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Most Ukrainians recognize this year’s invasion as an escalation of an ongoing war that Russia started in 2014. 

In January, with Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, I started looking for contact information for my Ukrainian cousins to know what was happening with them. I made new connections and some reconnections after decades. Around this time, I was also planning a three-week course trip to Berlin, Germany, with about a dozen Norwich University students and discovered that there were regular volunteer drivers who traveled between Berlin and the Polish-Ukrainian border. I decided that over one of my free weekends in Berlin, I would do the same: rent a car, take supplies to the border, and bring anyone back who needed a ride.

A few weeks later, I was introduced to Jim and Larissa Haas, the couple behind the terrific Rise Up Bakery in Barre City. By that time, Larissa (who is originally from Kyiv) had crowdfunded more than $20,000 and was in the process of buying medical supplies. As luck would have it, I would be leaving for Germany just after she received the supplies, and given that my flight was already booked, Larissa saw that it’d be cheaper for me to take them with me than for her to ship them. This would free up funds to buy more medical supplies. 

In mid-May in Berlin, I drove nine uneventful hours through Germany and Poland. Larissa had put me in touch with Pawel, a Polish-born Ukrainian who lives in a town near the border, who would take the supplies the rest of the way to Kyiv. Pawel was wholeheartedly welcoming. After I dropped off the boxes in his garage, he invited me to a barbecue with some of his friends. There were a mix of other Polish-born Ukrainians and Ukrainian refugees playing volleyball there, along with their kids. 

At the barbecue, we were reflecting on the fact that a military base 10 kilometers away from where we were standing had been hit by cruise missiles, but where we were, people could feel completely safe on the other side of that made-up line of the border. I also learned then that Ukrainians had borrowed some language from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series: they referred to the Russians as orcs. Pawel described their barbecue get-together like being in Hobbiton. 

The question I heard from everyone I talked to there was whether we (Americans) supported them. They were grateful for the aid that the U.S. government had been sending, and even more so for the aid coming from crowdfunded efforts like Larissa’s. But they weren’t sure exactly how much support they actually had for their efforts to defend their country.

These are people who do not want their homes destroyed, who don’t want their family members killed, who don’t want to be conquered by Russia. It’s not about the United States or NATO or you and me. It’s about the Ukrainian people. 

Though this war has gone on for months now and received a lot of media coverage, please don’t let it exhaust you or let it disappear from your consciousness. The politicians are going to do what they’re going to do, but we as individuals can still help individual Ukrainians. If you have the means, let’s show them that we do support them and please continue to donate to Larissa’s fundraiser so that we can get more medical supplies there this summer and join us for “Vermont Stands With Ukraine” in Burlington on Saturday, June 25.

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